Megan Abbott launched her latest novel, The Fever, at BookCourt in Brooklyn. The Fever follows the close-nit Nash family in a rural town afflicted by a mysterious illness infecting teenage girls.
Many of those in attendance were also writers. “There’s no community more supportive than the crime writer community,” Abbott said.
Abbott says she imagined writing a book like The Fever ever since she was a child–the idea of an isolated small town dealing with the confusion caused by mystery. The novel draws inspiration from two sources: the twitching girls of LeRoy, New York, and the Salem witchcraft trials. As a child of eight or nine, Abbott’s parents took her to the Salem Witch Museum. The museum offered live reenactments of the girls hurling themselves to the floor and Abbott says she suffered nightmares for a decade.
The twitching girls involved unexplained tourrette-like symptoms manifesting in eighteen teenage girls in upstate New York. The girls became the subject of months-long media coverage as the unexplained symptoms continued. Many of the girls posted videos of themselves on YouTube, further fueling attention.
Although the novel takes some inspiration from the events in LeRoy, the characters are all invented. They aren’t based on individuals. Abbott was more interested in the way the world commented on the events rather than the cases facing each girl. Early on, many doctors blamed media coverage for continued symptoms. And there were plenty of comments on the internet to inspire her. Many internet comments blamed the girls of LeRoy as attention seekers or entirely faking the symptoms. Others had theories about vaccines. Parents often envisioned whatever fears they had as the root cause.
Abbott sees a kind of metaphor for adolescence in this: a child growing up, bodies changing, a frightening change on display. For parents, this period of growth has their child replaced by something alien, a girl becoming a woman. Physical changes are accompanied by changes in mood and behavior. Parents not only experience these changes but also began to see new dangers facing their children in the world.
The novel is told from three points of view–father, son, and teenage daughter. The different perspectives allow elements of the novel to unfold with limited knowledge by each individual generating mystery and suspense. The disorienting effect is intentional, allowing the reader to feel their theory is correct until another character disproves it.
The hardest of these voices, Abbott says, was the teenage girl. She had just written in the voice of a mean cheerleader, and Deenie, the daughter, isn’t mean. The teen voice was important though as the victims are teen girls and a high school play prominently in the novel. Some of the characters do achieve that mean girl spirit. “I had a lo tof aggression in my heart,” Abbott says, describing how she achieved the teenage dialect. “We all have mean girls inside of us.”
As a teenager, Abbott says she felt much more strongly about everything. She channeled that in building the teen girl characters. She adds that she built relationships around the three girls–and three girls together is never a good idea.
Abbott says she’s obsessed with teenage girls. They are often treated as jokes or serve as objects of the gaze. Few people treat them as serious or important. She wanted to change that.
The Fever takes place in the modern era, breaking one of Abbott’s rules about including computers and phones, but those technologies play an important role in the story. Teen girls today have a much more difficult time, Abbott thinks, than older generations. Social media constantly taunts them. “To be a teenager now–everything can come back to haunt you,” she says.